In an age when Eminem and Gwyneth Paltrow win Grammys and Oscars, Austin's annual Music Awards stand in stark contrast. For a town whose blood runs music, there's no lack of hipsters, scenesters, and next big things. And yet, somehow, year after year, and particularly in the past few Music Polls, the growing populace of the Texas state capital manages to ferret out the musicians who really are the best that Austin has to offer. Case in point was local drummer Brannen Temple, who received one of the first awards of the evening. Lots of skinbeaters here in River City, but few are as versatile as Temple, able to bash it out with everyone from Eric Johnson to Stephen Bruton, then lay it down smooth and subtle with what's arguably the best jazz combo in Austin right now, Blaze. More pointed was singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves' win for Song of the Year. Austin, like other bustling metropoli, is enamored of its underground DJ electronics and status as emerging hip-hop mecca, and yet there was Cleaves, just another guy with a guitar and songcraft to burn, winning (with the help of KGSR's playlist) for Song and Best Single -- the title track to last year's Broke Down
. When Cleaves took the stage with his backing trio for the first set of the evening, it was easy to see why he'd won: his husky tenor, rich acoustic sound, and songs that speak to the nature of Texas. Songs about getting knocked down in the dust and getting back up again. With grace. "Down at the Horseshoe Lounge" is Austin to an A. And in no way was it simply Cleaves' well-deserved honors that signaled this town's independence from style over substance. The entire evening was a celebration of what makes Austin Austin -- Austin. It was as if the town itself swept the awards: Nearly every winner, every speech was a tribute to the city. Tary Owens' induction into the Hall of Fame was heartening because, as he said, "Twenty years ago when I was shooting dope on the street, I never imagined I'd be here. I'm the luckiest son of a bitch I know." That voters inducted Owens means he's not only the luckiest S.O.B., but the richest, too, if you believe what they say about a man and his friends. Vallejo, who won Best Rock Band honors, proclaimed their "love for Austin," as did Best DJ Roger Wilson, who's been spinning for 17 years in this town and was clearly honored and awed to be recognized for his steel wheels work at Polly Esther's. When Austin City Limits
, renowned around the world as River City's ultimate calling card, won its umpteenth-in-a-row award for Best Local Music TV Show, the producers spoke of Austin being "the audience we most wanna please." Best Traditional Mexican/Latino Act Correo Aereo proved that Music Poll voters understand their categories perfectly. Sure, there was former Awards emcee, poster artist, and Uranium Savage Kerry Awn cracking wise about the Awards simply being a springboard for an assistant managership at Thundercloud Subs or a slot at the Hole in the Wall, but he spoke for Austin like a clairvoyant when he remarked about the travesty of "Clifford Antone being in the Big House while George Bush is in the White House." (Where's a Clinton pardon when you need one?) The "'86ed" tribute to Austin bands of the Eighties might have prompted some out-of-towners at the packed Austin Music Hall to think that longtime locals such as Steve Collier, Randy Franklin, Kim Longacre, and Cindy Toth had spent the ensuing decades since bands like Doctor's Mob, the Wild Seeds, and the Reivers ruled the local roost making sandwiches, but their lifetime of music service was clearly not about fame. "We've had 15 years to think things over," said Collier before launching into the set's first number, "and we're finally ready to play ball with the record industry." Despite Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham reuniting on the True Believers' classic "The Rain Won't Help You (When It's Over)" and Kathy McCarty crooning Glass Eye "hit" "Christine," that old-time Austin feel didn't kick in until Wild Seed Mike Hall kicked off his "I'm Sorry I Can't Rock You All Night Long." With Fastball timekeeper Joey Shuffield beating the toms like Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, the '86 players broke into one huge collective grin that had nothing to do with fame and fortune and everything to do with Austin's rich musical history and reliving it. This is what a lot of local scenesters had come for, and they weren't disappointed. Too Nice Girl Gretchen Phillips, another Hall of Fame inductee, spoke of seeing Kathy McCarty 20 years ago and being inspired to follow the same career path. "It's a total pleasure to be from this town," said Phillips with touching sincerity, "and to be here tonight. Thank you so much Austin, I love you a lot." The Butthole Surfers' King Coffey, inducted into the Hall of Fame by Randy "Biscuit" Turner of the Big Boys, resplendent in one of his rainbow sock explosion outfits, was no less humbled by his honor. The Most Humbled award of the evening, however, went to SIMS Foundation head Peyton Wimmer, who was visibly choked up after receiving a check for $132,000 from KGSR's Jody Denberg. It was, said Peyton, the first time that the local foundation, which provides free mental health services for local musicians, was in the black. And so it went, the tributes to Austin coming left and right, whether from the staff at Waterloo Records, or in the form of musical sets from the likes of Vallejo and the Gourds. Toward the end of the night, Lucinda Williams paid Austin the ultimate tribute by simply showing up to play a set in a town that loves her like no other. Decked out in her cowboy hat and white Gram Parsons pants, Williams previewed numbers from her upcoming album Essence
("I didn't take too long this time," she winked), her voice the voice of expanse and experience, of heart and heartbreak, and all that Austin needed to be transported into the zone. Into bliss. No doubt they were in that same place when James Cotton ended the night guesting Jimmie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton on what is sure to be the 2001-02 AMA Song of the Year, "In the Middle of the Night," but since daily deadlines are, well, deadly, some of us missed it. "Goodnight Austin, Texas," Denberg said while handing over his big, fat check. "Wherever you are." Right here, brother. We're right here.